Monday, January 10, 2011

American Astronomical Society, Day 1

This week I am at the 217th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, Washington.  There are nearly 3000 astronomers registered for the meeting and swarming all over downtown Seattle.  There should be lots of exciting astronomy news coming out of this conference; keep an eye on your newspaper or sites like Universe Today for the full complement of news; I only get to see a small portion of all the excitement!

Today's news included a Kepler discovery of a planet only a little larger than the Earth and a cool Hubble picture of Hanny's Voorwerp, a cloud of ghostly, greenish glowing gas discovered by a Dutch school teacher.  The planet is about 40% larger in diameter than the Earth and has a mass about 4 or 5 times that of the Earth, which means it almost certainly has a core of iron and nickel surrounded by some rock.  It would not be a great place to live -- it circles its parent star every 20 hours and likely has a surface temperature of 2500 degrees Celsius.  As one astronomer said about another, even hotter Jupiter-sized planet, "It's not very hospitable."

Over lunch, I went to a town hall meeting led by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The NSF is trying to balance an ambitious plan for astronomy research in the new decade with extreme pessimism regarding future budgets.   Even with optimistic budgets, the NSF and the astronomy community would have to make some tough choices regarding priorities, but it is the uncertainty about the budget that seems most concerning.   Many of the planned projects may not need money until 2017 or 2020, but require concrete investments today.  Given that we don't yet have a federal budget for the fiscal year that started last fall, plans for a 2020 budget are just pipe dreams.  At least we are far better off than our British colleagues (for now).

The quote of the day came during the National Science Foundation town hall meeting during an answer to a question about Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST, a new, advanced telescope to study at the sun): "We have an extragalactic astronomer [an astronomer who studies distant galaxies] in charge of ATST because there's nobody in astronomy who knows anything about the Sun."

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